In an age of football where volatility is rife and the turnover of managers is larger than ever, it’s somewhat contradictory that ‘philosophy’ is currently one of the biggest buzzwords around the sport. Implementing an ideology with clear direction for the future is vital, but a failure to promptly match that with positive results will, despite time being a necessary commodity for any plan, often lead to a change of the coaching staff before the strategy can be fully developed.
With such a focus on the short term leading to an environment where there’s often something of an aversion to true originality and risk taking, seeing intriguing new ideas emerge is always sweeter to watch. So whilst Bayer Leverkusen’s performance in all the competitions they entered this season was pretty much identical to that which they attained in 2013/14, doing so under the guidance (and much more entertaining style) of the innovative Roger Schmidt made it all the better.
Believing in and playing with an exciting, distinctive and successful brand of football was what earned Schmidt his move to the BayArena in the first place, and his systematic changes at the German club have again clearly led to evident improvements on the pitch (even if the results appear the same without any context behind there) in his first season at the club. He’s undoubtedly developed the team, and a large part of that is as a consequence of him sticking to his brilliant ideas – and not abandoning them despite the pressures of the modern game. What’s a little ironic though, given how principled Schmidt is, is that he earned his move to Leverkusen whilst at a club which is regarded as anything but that.
Following their complete rebranding as a club after a takeover by a certain well-known energy drink manufacturer in 2005, there has been relatively little discussion of Red Bull Salzburg’s footballing performance in the last decade. Their dominance of the Austrian Bundesliga was anticipated and duly acknowledged, but the string of titles which subsequently came did nothing but enhance their reputation as being not much more than a club which had sold its soul and identity to the devil – an embodiment of the modernisation of this new era of the global game. With that heavily-cast shadow looming, and sizeable expectation for success there too, to emerge from that job with genuine praise would take some real doing.
Yet, in his two seasons at the club, that’s exactly what Schmidt managed to do; earning a long list of admirers on his way to implementing one of the most entertaining, high intensity styles which could be found around Europe. The German initially took the job at the Red Bull Arena in June 2012, following on from a decent one-year spell at SC Paderborn in his home country, and quickly set about instigating what could be regarded as his own, much more positive restructuring job with the side.
The first year yielded no particularly overt success, as they finished second in the league behind FK Austria Vienna and were surprisingly knocked out early on in the Champions League qualifiers by F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg, but it did help to provide a platform for the establishment of some important foundations at the club. Players like Valon Berisha, Kevin Kampl and Sadio Mané were brought into the club and coached to become imperative parts of Schmidt’s wider plan – one which came to much greater fruition in the 2013/14 season as they finished top of the division by an impressive 18 point margin.
Even though they actually only gained three more points compared to Schmidt’s bedding-in season, all aspects of their play underwent clear improvements. They scored an incredible 110 goals (3.06 per game) compared to the already high 91 from the previous campaign, and also had the best defensive record in the division to go alongside that potency in attack: conceding 35, which was four less than they did in 2012/13. On top of the league, they also won the Austrian Cup to complete a double too.
Despite some of the domestic thrashings which they imposed and a 6-1 aggregate win over Ajax in the Europa League (they went out to Basel in the round of sixteen after that though), perhaps the most eye-catching result of that second season actually came in a non-competitive game during the winter break. With both the Austrian and German leagues having no fixtures for a period of time, Schmidt’s Red Bull Salzburg side took on Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in a friendly on the 18th January. Maybe it counted for little in reality, but the 3-0 win for the eventual Austrian champions over a pretty much full strength Bayern side was an extraordinary victory all the same. It wasn’t just the result which stood out, though, and the actual manner of the performance was arguably just as extraordinary and memorable.
Using a 4-4-2 shape as they so often did, Red Bull Salzburg’s strikers aggressively pressed the Bayern centre-backs whilst the rest of the team moved forward and made ball-orientated shifts to the side of the field where play was facing. With options and space limited on the corresponding wing and the midfield pushed high, the only real option for Bayern to keep the ball without the big risk of being heavily closed down (excluding ambitious switches of play to try and expose that shifting movement of the Austrian team) was back to the goalkeeper. There was no way to play out, and Bayern’s natural game was completely shut down. They couldn’t cope with the pressing, performed at a staggering intensity which was matched only by the synchronicity with which it was carried out.
A well-known advocate of pressing himself, Guardiola formed a huge feeling of admiration for Schmidt following that match. He was fascinated by the fast transitioning, high pressure unit which the German had created over in Austria, particularly having witnessed – and felt the force of – it first-hand, and that experience helped him (as well as his team) to develop new ideas and improve in the long-term.
Having a manager of Guardiola’s pedigree being so intrigued in his style could be regarded as an enormous form of indirect backing for Schmidt, a pronounced proof that his work was beginning to become more and more noticed despite working in one of Europe’s less publicised leagues – though it wouldn’t take too long before he was rewarded with a distinctly more direct show of support by another party situated in Germany. That’s when Bayer Leverkusen came calling.
Whilst Leverkusen had enjoyed a sensational start to the Bundesliga season, a dramatic decline in their performances after the turn of the year saw them put their chances of Champions League qualification into serious jeopardy. From second at the start of the winter break, they picked up just 11 points in the following 12 games which left them fourth at the start of April. A 2-1 defeat to a poor, relegation-threatened Hamburg side proved to be one bad result too many for Sami Hyypiä, and he ended up being sacked the following day in the hope that they could still salvage a place in the top four despite being in freefall.
It proved to be a good decision in the end, as Sascha Lewandowski (who was promoted to become the interim head coach having previously been working with the club’s youth teams) turned things around and picked up 13 points out the available 15 – a tally which enabled them to finish one point ahead of Wolfsburg in fourth. They’d have to go through a qualifying round, but the club just about snuck into Europe’s elite competition again.
In the middle of that turn of fortunes at the end of the season though, or more specifically on the 25th April, Schmidt was announced as the permanent successor to Hyypiä with the intention of him taking over at the end of the season. Rudi Völler, the sporting director of Bayer Leverkusen, publically cited that Schmidt’s “approach to playing football fits perfectly” with the club, a proclamation which has since proved to be very correct.
As well as fitting the philosophy held by the upper echelons of the club hierarchy, the players he had at his disposal upon joining were well suited to some sort of pressing game too, but – as he did so well back in Austria – Schmidt still made use of the summer transfer window to add yet more appropriate personnel to the club for what he wanted to build.
Three notable attacking players arrived at Leverkusen who weren’t there in the prior season, one each from the three sides who finished in the bottom three of the Bundesliga. One of those so-called ‘arrivals’ was Karim Bellarabi, who returned to the club after a successful loan spell at Eintracht Braunschweig, whilst Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Josip Drmić were actually new signings, bought from Hamburg and FC Nürnberg respectively. A rapid wide player, a technically-brilliant young playmaker and someone with a real goal-scoring instinct, there was a very clear part in the squad for the trio.
From a more defensive perspective, meanwhile, Tin Jedvaj (initially on loan, a deal which was made permanent in January), Kyriakos Papadopoulos (on loan) and Wendell were also brought in. These three similarly had an evident role to play, providing reinforcements to the backline in the form of defenders who are reasonably quick and also good with the ball.
Of the arrivals, Drmić, Jedvaj and Papadopoulos proved to be worthy squad players throughout the season, whilst the other three ended up being very successful mainstays in the first team; with every one of the six helping to implement and keep up Schmidt’s style. There’s quite a clear pattern of the additions as a collective too – they’re all very mobile, energetic and young players (Bellarabi, who turned 25 in April, is the oldest by a couple of years) who could be more easily moulded into exactly how Schmidt wanted them.
And mould he did, working his young team into one which – as mentioned at the start – had a pretty successful 2014/15 season. But again, just like at Red Bull Salzburg, it’s the manner of the success and the style that they play which is much more interesting than the actual achievements themselves.
So how exactly did they play? Well, unsurprisingly, there are a number of similarities between the two teams which Schmidt has had a key role in creating, with the defensive set-up and pressing holding a huge role in the maintenance of an aggressive, high energy, attack-minded system.
Their formation is widely considered as a 4-2-3-1 on paper, but in defensive phases that typically transitions into a narrow, horizontally compact 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 shape – a result of Çalhanoğlu pushing up alongside Stefan Kießling from the number 10 spot. These two are the most common initiators of Bayer Leverkusen’s pressing process, generally focusing on the opposition centre-backs in order to stop them from having time on the ball to develop possession from the back. They also play an important role in blocking passing lanes through the centre of the pitch, which prevents an otherwise easy route for the other team to get the ball into midfield.
Either side of that pair the two wide players, Bellarabi and Son, adopt reasonably narrow positions, enabling them to potentially cover a number of areas as well as further forcing play to go into the less dangerous, less spacious wide areas. Typically this involves pressing the opposing full-back when play goes wide, but it also puts them in an area where they can support the front two by closing down the centre-backs, or even help out the midfield quickly by dropping further inside if the first press is bypassed.
Beyond the front four, the two central midfielders – normally two of Lars Bender, Gonzalo Castro (who has just recently agreed a move to Borussia Dortmund, this season's shock underachievers) and Simon Rolfes – are positioned in a manner which further (on top of the job which the front two do) blocks off any direct vertical passes from the opposition centre-backs. This is normally achieved through man-marking, stopping opponents who attempt to either exploit Çalhanoğlu’s high position or just beat the press completely with a longer pass. Having only two players in this area does leave them somewhat vulnerable to being outnumbered in the centre if the ball is moved quickly enough, but as mentioned Bellarabi and Son are often quick to provide support in those areas if the opposition do attempt an overload there.
A huge benefit of this kind of 4-4-2 team shape for a defensive system, as also demonstrated by Atlético Madrid for example, is that it’s in essence a very simple shape. The three lines are clearly distinguished, and collapsing those in a manner which quickly cuts off space is easy to do due to the positions of the players and the various areas that they each cover.
As a result, and in combination with their aim to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible, Bayer Leverkusen often, instead of constantly performing man-marking jobs, attempt pressing traps when the other side are in the early stages of their own ball circulation – by enticing them into seemingly safe areas before quickly shutting down space (and passing options) for the ball carrier in order to win possession for themselves.
These are most regularly performed in wide areas, both because of the limitation of angles which is imposed by the touchline (only 180 degrees, as opposed to 360 elsewhere) and their own strengths. Schmidt’s side have two incredibly fast wingers who hold a great grasp of where they should be positioned in these situations – especially Bellarabi – as well as energetic midfielders and a pair of full-backs who are strong in one-on-one situations, which all enhance their ability to enforce such traps.
The narrow positioning of Bellarabi and Son is the key in this working, and the pressing movement which they make is mostly delayed until the moment when a pass is played to the full-back on the other team. That encourages the pass to happen as that full-back appears to be in space, hence the ‘trap’, but then as soon as the ball is released it triggers the closing down to begin. The Bayer Leverkusen winger on that side presses the full-back, whilst other players of theirs (generally one of the front two and either the central midfielder or full-back on that side) also push up the field and overload the nearby space and passing options to create a numerical advantage.
After originally thinking he has lots of time to control the ball, the full-back who’s about to receive the pass suddenly has no time at all. This regularly causes panic, expressed through a poor touch, a clearance, or a rushed pass back to the player who initially passed it to him; who, himself, is about to be pressured in the exact same way himself. It’s an extremely effective way to initiate a new, more unexpected wave of pressure and try to win the ball back.
These pressing traps do also occur through the middle of the pitch too, often with one of the central midfielders ‘losing’ the man he is marking. By standing a couple of steps away from his opponent, this can make one of the opposition defenders or goalkeeper think there’s an easy way to bypass the front four and give his player time to receive the ball and develop their possession further up the field. In reality though, the Leverkusen midfielder is well aware that a pass may be incoming and is ready to press – and maybe steal the ball – as soon as it does: with the instant support of his well synchronised teammates, of course.
That coordination, both in their shape and in reacting to their various pressing triggers, is the fundamental upon which this whole system is built. It’s rewarded them very well in general too – 37 goals conceded is the third-lowest record in the Bundesliga, whilst their average of 8.8 shots against them per game is the fifth-lowest in Europe’s top five leagues. Their high figures for tackles (21.4), interceptions (20.9) and fouls (17.9) per game are also indicative of their pressing methods, both in the aforementioned traps and their more ‘regular’ phases of it, with a large part of their success relying on overloading areas – packing them with players to completely suffocate the opposition and prevent them from getting any space or time whatsoever.
Whilst on the majority of occasions these ball-orientated shifts work, it does leave space on the opposite side of the pitch which is open to be exploited by runs from deep. Actually switching the play like this when under intense pressure is far from easy, it must be said, but any relief in the pressing can be punished by the best players if they get a chance to make that kind of pass.
When the pressing is successful, however, these overloads are hugely beneficial for Schmidt’s team in an attacking sense. Having a number of players in the nearby vicinity gives the eventual ball winner a number of possible options to pass to, helping to secure the turnover of possession in their favour and ensure that they keep the ball straight after winning it. Bayer Leverkusen certainly aren’t a side who just keep the ball for the sake of it though, and their strategy as an offensive unit is largely comparable with their defensive one; it’s fast, it’s direct, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Most importantly for them though, of course, it’s effective.
The directness of their attack is one of the most important factors of their success, and not necessarily in the long pass kind of sense (an average of 69 long balls per game is the drawn third-lowest in the Bundesliga) but rather with the idea being to transition at lightning speeds before the opposition is able to get into their defensive shape. As a result, highly aggressive passing and running occur continuously, with attacking movements being made into dangerous areas in the very same moment that possession is won – or sometimes even before, in anticipation of a successful turnover.
Where those off the ball runs are a largely immeasurable symbolisation of their attacking philosophy and the risks involved with it, their actually measurable choices with the ball show it very distinctly. Bayer Leverkusen’s average of 51.7% possession per game in the Bundesliga is nothing particularly notable, but a pass success rate of 69.9% is staggeringly low for a team of their quality. It was the third-lowest in their division over the course of the season and, of the 98 teams in Europe’s top five leagues, Bayer Leverkusen recorded the fifth-lowest percentage.
It’s the conversion of ball control into chances which matters much more to them than that though, favouring quantity over quality and a failed forward pass over a successful backward one. Schmidt’s team have something of a shoot-on-sight policy, attempting shots from all kinds of angles and distances, often staggeringly soon after winning the ball through their high pressing style – a big part of their ploy to exploit the opposition being out of position. They average just 25.5 passes per shot which they take in games, the drawn-lowest of all teams in the top five European leagues, and long spells of possession are few and far between. Just get the ball forwards and attack, pretty much. The rush is relentless, the tempo breathtaking.
As a result of this their volume of shots is understandably high (16.3 per game) and the location of them is often far out: a large 48% of their shots come from outside of the box. Unsurprisingly they resultantly aren’t amongst the very best sides in terms of shot conversion percentage, given the nature of a lot of the chances, but creating so many shooting opportunities (whatever the means of them may be) is one of the reasons that they scored an impressive 62 league goals.
Perhaps this easy relinquishing of the ball so early into a potential possession phase is questionable and seemingly undisciplined at times, when using the ball a bit more wisely could result in a better quality of chance, but it’s possible that the quick shooting trigger is actually intended as a successful way to unsettle defences. Defenders know that Bayer Leverkusen’s attackers are going to shoot quickly and if that’s reinforced in their minds during matches then they’re more likely to try and rush out to prevent an attempt on goal later on, thus creating another space which can be exposed on the occasions when they don’t opt to shoot.
Whether that’s an intentional part of Schmidt’s plan or not, he certainly has a string of excellent attackers at his disposal who have helped him to carry out his more definite and distinct ideals, taking it up a level from what he created at Red Bull Salzburg. It’s in the three who play behind the striker where this is most evident, and in Bellarabi, Çalhanoğlu and Son (as well as their exciting young back-up for those areas, Julian Brandt) they have a set of fast, vertical and technically good attackers who are brilliant at, on top of their well performed roles in the pressing and defensive shape, utilising space and running with the ball.
Bellarabi on the right wing in particular is an excellent outlet in that regard, and the German international has averaged an enormous 4.7 successful dribbles per league game this season – the highest in Europe’s top five leagues this season. He beats men with ease and often varies his positioning between the touchline and the half-spaces, like where he’s stationed during defensive phases, with the latter area being one where he’s closer to goal and able to fire shots away at the target. A big average of 3.2 shots per game demonstrates this (on top of how he plays his role in Schmidt’s high shot volume system), and a tally of 12 goals in all competitions for the 2014/15 campaign was a decent return.
On the other side is Son, a less extravagant and more efficient shooter playing as an inverted winger, a position which allows him to cut inside onto his stronger right foot (although he does have a very good left foot as well), whilst Çalhanoğlu – arguably the most technically gifted of their attackers – plays centrally and helps to link it together. The latter’s output is boosted by his wonderful set-pieces, with six of his goals coming directly from free-kicks as a result of his ability to manipulate a dead ball in whatever fashion he desires, but his ability to drift around in order to create space, facilitate runs, play passes and fire off shots from small areas is excellent.
The seemingly less Schmidt-style player of their attack is the striker, Kießling, who lacks the pace and technical ability of the others. He’s a very good goal-scorer though with a rather powerful running style, and it’s his ability to lead the line well by holding up the ball and bringing runners into play which has seen him continue to be Bayer Leverkusen’s number one striker for yet another season. His aerial ability is particularly notable too, with his average of 7.4 successful aerial duels per game being the highest in Europe’s top five leagues this season.
This is indicative of the fact that this is often used as an additional route to get the ball forward quickly in their normal, non-transitional phases of attacking play, and at times they’ll overload a central area on the pitch around Kießling before using the goalkeeper or one of the centre-backs to play a long ball towards his general position. Sometimes the German striker may win the header and knock it on to one of his teammates and put them in a position to attack, whilst at other times it causes enough of a nuisance for the ball to remain at that end of the pitch. If that happens, it gives the multiple attackers who swarmed to that area a great chance to unleash their press and win the ball back high up the field.
It’s not just in these long ball situations where they attack with some elements of compactness about them though, and their front four in particular have very good associative play in tight areas. This is a key skill to have when they can’t simply burst into space and have to develop play a bit more from deep themselves, and gives them a much-needed tool to break down the low-block defences which they encounter. Compared to Schmidt’s team in Austria, this added quality is possibly the most striking difference.
With one or both of the full-backs (it’s typically Wendell from left-back) providing the width, Son and Bellarabi are able to tuck inside and play a lot closer to Çalhanoğlu and Kießling. Çalhanoğlu often facilitates a lot of this movement by dropping in and out of spaces in a similar manner to Mesut Özil, his fellow German-born Turk, and his drifting also enables one of their midfield duo – generally Castro – to push forwards from deep. Pouring into this area often gives them numerical supremacy through the middle and opportunities to combine, whilst the full-back is the wide outlet for the occasions when they need to spread the play.
Playing in a compact manner offensively also has its uses in a defensive sense, as the short distances between the players enables them to quickly create a unit to counter-press with if they lose possession; nullifying the threat of a potential counter-attack against them, either by winning the ball back for themselves or by giving the rest of the team a chance to regain a decent defensive shape before the crucially delayed attack occurs.
Whilst they often do this very well, like they do with the rest of their pressing, it’s here where Bayer Leverkusen are at their most vulnerable as a team. In the event of a sudden turnover of possession, the transition to their defensive unit has to be done just right: if the distances between the players are too large then the opposition will be able to play through the middle of them, whilst a very small distance will enable the opponents to play around the large number of players they have forward and easily bypass the initial press with a long ball. The same (although to a lesser extent) goes for their general, non-transitional phases of defending, when they still commit players forward for the press.
As a result of the risks they take it can provide the opponents with masses of space to expose when it does go wrong. So, whilst a number of the shots which Leverkusen attempt are quantitatively high but qualitatively low, the ones which they concede during a game are often the opposite. Their average number of shots against them per game (8.8) may be the third-lowest in the Bundesliga but, even with the extremely talented Bernd Leno in goal, they concede goals at a below average (13th best in the division) rate of one every 8.1 shots.
A quick comparison to Borussia Mönchengladbach, the side who finished one place above Leverkusen in third, shows two very different sides in that sense – and helps to reinforce proof of one of the biggest weaknesses of Leverkusen’s front-footed defensive system. Despite allowing close to double (15.4) the amount of shots per game as Schmidt’s team do they’ve conceded just 26 goals, at an insanely high rate of 20.1 shots per goal. The next best figure in the Bundesliga is 14.2, just to put that into more perspective, and it shows a big difference in their defensive methods with regards to the quantity and quality of shooting opportunities which occur against them. The game between these two teams on the 9th May, which Mönchengladbach won 3-0, demonstrated this perfectly.
Leverkusen appeared to dominate in terms of the number of shots, with 18 attempts compared to 10 for the home side, but from a specifically defensive perspective it was a wonderful showing by Mönchengladbach. They restricted Leverkusen to have a huge 11 – or 61.1% – of their shots from outside the box, and they blocked seven efforts in total as well. Compare that to Leverkusen, meanwhile, who allowed 80% of shots to occur from inside the area and blocked just one shot, and there’s a big difference. Mönchengladbach allow opponents to attack and instead try to limit their quality of chances, whilst Leverkusen go for the more hazardous (but also more rewarding when they do win the ball) approach of attempting to cut off moves at their source.
That game also displayed the other significant weakness of Leverkusen’s highly intense defensive strategy – tiredness. Whilst Mönchengladbach weren’t constantly using up energy in their more reserved and tight low block, Leverkusen’s pressing (as well as them needing to chase the match after going 1-0 down in the 50th minute) in advanced areas of the field proved to have a real draining effect on them late on. Lucien Favre’s side were fresher and that helped them to score two late goals, in the 81st and 88th minutes, to kill the game
In general Leverkusen have done extremely well to maintain their intensity over the whole season, not experiencing the largely expected drop-off of form towards the end of the campaign which sides like Marcelo Bielsa’s Marseille or Marcelino’s Villarreal have, but as that example showed they have still been particularly vulnerable in the closing stages of individual matches.
Of their 37 league goals conceded, 29.7% of them have come after the 75th minute: that’s the third-highest percentage of all teams in the Bundesliga, and it shows how difficult it is to sustain such a high tempo for the full 90 minutes. This is similarly signified by their own lack of ability to score goals in those last 15 minutes, with a league’s third-lowest 19.4% of their 62 goals coming then.
Perhaps it’s in these latter phases of matches where learning how to effectively manage games like José Mourinho’s Chelsea side do for example could prove to be beneficial, such as by retaining possession in deep areas or taking up less front-footed defensive methods in periods throughout, but to do that would mean sacrificing some of the other parts of their game which make them such an effective unit. It would also thus mean straying away from one of the fundamental principles of Schmidt’s philosophy which, though they may occasionally be flawed, is one of the most beautiful and admirable things about this team of his.
It’s been a delight to see him carry the same ideals which he displayed in Austria over to an environment at Bayer Leverkusen where he could expand on them as a result of having better players and resources at his disposal, creating yet another tactically-fascinating, engrossing young side.
He’s set an excellent foundation for himself in his first season at the BayArena, and after signing a three-year contract extension until 2019 on the 21st May he has a long time to continue building upon it. Expect even bigger things to come in the future from one of the most exciting teams and coaches in world football right now.